Each and Her

Valerie Martínez

University of Arizona Press

2010

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

The world is filled with appalling things, impossible to rank or even count. But difficulties of enumeration don’t make the horrors equal, even if each must remain distinct to those who endure them. That said, some injuries elude comprehension. The abnormal is easy to understand, because it refers to the normal, it presumes a normal exists and can be known. The difficulties occur when the abnormal displaces the normal. How do you think about things so wrong that all standard registers of meaning lose traction? This is one of many questions that haunt Each and Her, which is Mart&#237nez’s effort to confront the persistent travesties of Ju&#225rez.

Of the murdered women of Ciudad Ju&#225rez, much has been written, which is itself part of the horror, because the crimes have been occurring since the 1990’s&#8212long enough to provoke outrage and commentary, neither of which seem capable of arresting the loss. The decay of local legal and civic structures means that it is not even remotely possible to determine the number of victims. For their families, an exact accounting matters terribly; the fact that there cannot be one both compounds and summarizes the atrocity perfectly, for when there are so many murdered in a context so intractably broken, injustice has come to replace even the possibility of justice as the norm.

And there’s no effective way to think about this, because it fails miserably simply to say that’s awful or that’s wrong. The problem is that fidelity to the facts, while admirable, also leads to a numbing, a kind of cognitive exhaustion. In addition to the nature of the crimes, the scale is also a violence, since it makes it impossible to accurately track the lives affected. The facts are too vast to catalogue, even if they were fully known, which they are not and never can be. But the truth, which the facts both obscure and elucidate, is that hundreds of women are dead because men wanted to kill them, and could, and did.

Some have objected that the focus on the murdered girls and women is fetishistic, and ignores the larger problems of Ju&#225rez. And it’s true that murder is terrifyingly common there, as is the fear that prohibits the citizenry or government from even acknowledging the destruction of civic life even as that destruction creates not only death but mass derangement. But I think it is important to draw attention to the femicide, because while it is concurrent with the general chaos, it differs in that there can be no pragmatic shield (however specious or disingenuous) to explain the murders other than fear and hatred of women.

The victims, mainly maquiladoras driven to the border cities by the promise of factory wages, were not in the wrong place at the wrong time, they did not see things that might compromise someone’s trade, they did not inform the police of missing persons, they did not witness any crimes other than the daily crime of de facto slavery in the service of American and international corporate power. They were simply vulnerable and female.

How does one approach this, how does one approach it anew, when the reality of the problem is well-known? Widespread familiarity has done nothing to improve things, as Mart&#237nez notes in her spare introduction:

According to press reports, 28 women and girls were murdered in Ciudad Ju&#225rez and he surrounding areas in 2004. The number was 58 in 2006 and 86 in 2008.

Press reports, of course, are only the most conservative estimate; many locals place the number into the thousands. Whether or not that’s accurate, the fact that the figure cannot be disproven or even set is proof of how lethally bizarre the situation has become. But Mart&#237nez is right to take the more cautious approach, because inflation&#8212of rhetoric, of reportage&#8212doesn’t communicate the wrongness; in some ways, it hides it.

This careful, minimalist approach characterizes all of Each and Her. Mart&#237nez employs several methodologies, but embraces none fully; she steps away from completion repeatedly. For instance, her primary use of metaphor is the flower&#8212Mart&#237nez quotes from gardening manuals and materials to great effect. She cites antiseptic or canned language in a context that makes the banal both ironic and horrific:

“…the best way to manage the disease is by inspection and sanitation. Remove faded or blighted flowers, blighted leaves, or entire plants infected at the base.”

or

“It Really Is Amazing How Many Different Enemies Are Out There To Get Your Roses!”

But these passages, deliberately unsubtle as they are, prime the reader for more ambiguous referents. Flowers appear in ekphrasistic description,

Rivera’s girl on her knees
sky-blue-bound shoulders

behind

his thick feet

enormous bale of calla lilies
lifted to her back

and they also recur in Mart&#237nez’s recollections of her own family’s border crossing, as a “yellow and indigo / paper-flower bouquet”. And then they appear as yet another aesthetic, literal adornment:

the bodice is corset-like, exquisite,
intricately adorned with tiny roses
stitched by little hands

the plant manager calls them
his beauty queens

Yet before this becomes too neat a formulation, an equation the solution of which could satisfy the reader’s need to make sense of the parade of tragedies Mart&#237nez presents, she explicitly undermines her own efforts. “Is there no way,” she asks, “to avoid the clichés”?

woman-flower
man-monger
fear-fever-control?

This is entirely the right question, since cliché is simply the lowest common denomination of comprehension, and illusory or shallow understanding is exactly what Mart&#237nez wants to resist. In fact, that cursory thoughtfulness&#8212the tsk, tsk, that’s terrible response&#8212is (if I’m reading her correctly) what she wants Each and Her to make impossible.

This is why her floral metaphors, her Castilian roses, are so much more than her suspicion of them suggests. For in each poem the flowers occur, they do so in such a way that indicates another point of reference or scale. So in the wedding dress fragment, the flowers return us both to the economic and labor realities of the maquil, as well as the pervasive, paternalistic misogyny of the plant manager, emblematic of a culture that values women as objects, as extensions of male dictates.

As with the roses, Mart&#237nez plays this in alternating major and minor chords. The relative subtlety of her representation of the plant manager stands against a quote like this:

“Sometimes, when you cross a shipment of drugs to the United States, adrenaline is so high that you want to celebrate by killing women!”

which in turns stands against

“What is a domesticated woman? A female of the species? The one explanation is as good as another. A woman is a woman. She only becomes a domestic, a wife, a chattel, a playboy bunny, a prostitute, or a human dictataphone in certain relations.”

Now consider the effect of these two quotes on this lightly-drawn fragment:

In the desert of Lote Bravo

two teenage boys
and their dogs

follow a trail

in scraps of women’s clothes

All of Each and Her acts in this fashion. Mart&#237nez disorients the reader with raw, grievous data, and then offers orientation via an organizing principle (whether metaphoric or symbolic or theoretical) and then disorients yet again, by embedding in each of the possible explanations the seed of an alternative meaning, which also presents the temptations of easy accounting only destabilize in turn.

Mart&#237nez has chosen her materials well. There’s no room to cite them all, but they include her own memories, including those of Amalia, from Ju&#225rez herself, who cooked and cared for Mart&#237nez and her siblings in San Ildefonso; lists of names and facts drawn from online archives; economic data about the life of the maquiladora; newspaper articles; even other texts that address the Ju&#225rez murders directly. Make no mistake: Mart&#237nez has stripped each of these from its original context, but it would be wrong to indict her for doing so, since the fragments she assembles create an effect that none can achieve singly. She hasn’t replaced the original context; she’s simply pointed out that there’s a bigger picture, one so vast that it cannot be seen so much as felt. She won’t allow the haunting to cease, because as long as the murders persist, as long as the world that allows and even encourages them maintains, everyone should be haunted.

Because her technique is to alienate her sources from their original function, it’s worth noting that Mart&#237nez is just as merciless with the material more traditionally understood as “hers”. She respects all of it, but trusts none of it to complete the task of resolving the challenge Ju&#225rez makes to the mind and the heart. As she steps into and away from aspects of comprehension, Mart&#237nez creates space for silence, which is of course the very thing lost in efforts to make “sense” of the murders. One of the poems in the book is, in fact, nothing at all, a blank page, which is as stark as the partial lists of names, Rosa Isela Corona Santos and Rosa Maria Gonzalez and Rosa Rivera Barajas and too many others.

Each and Her is an immaculately reserved book, a work of lace as strong as steel. It’s grotesque that it must exist, but I also think it is impossible that it not. Sometimes I wonder, as I’m sure everyone who bothers to think about poetry at all, what poetry is for. (I think I ask that question on this site every other review, actually.) It’s fascinating stuff, sure, but can it do anything worth doing, other than compelling interest? It can. Each and Her does something necessary, something that cannot be done by any other means.

mis hijas
?por que est&#225n peleando?

Mart&#237nez writes in an early fragment, and concludes

she’s your sister
you have to protect her!

Yes, we must.

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